Spring 2009: these Year 6 boys were considered trouble-makers and lost causes in terms of academic ability in the East London primary school where I worked. I suggested to senior management that I work with the less able kids, rather than the ‘gifted and talented’, and this would be the test case. It was agreed that we’d work on a small film project based on a current topic – Road Safety in this instance. The boys, who were nothing but respectful to me, couldn’t believe their luck that form and content relevant to their lives, involving self-penned rap, film, phones, music videos and mp3 players, were suddenly acceptable in the school context.
The project generated what now seem to me to be familiar claims associated with media projects: measures of an enhanced sense of trust, independence, respect, confidence; co-ordination of hand, eye and mind; creative collaboration; sustained energy and focus on an activity; the feeling of competence and pride in producing something they could show to others. However the same claims can be made of drama, art, music, dance and numerous other arts activities. The most rewarding aspect of using moving image in education is the opportunity to actively manipulate a medium to which students are already accustomed and to which they have had sustained, largely passive exposure. In most cases tacit knowledge lathers up like undiluted bubble bath under a stream of water; the trick is to rouse an aspiration to quality.
I’m put in mind of years of – again, largely passive – foreign language learning at school and the shock of actually visiting the country. Immersed in a new and strange environment you start to recognise certain language formulae and with practice actively start to build a new form of communication with new meanings. The formerly abstract and decontextualised phenomenon by default comes to deliver nuance, depth and character. So it is with the film making process: with sustained and purposeful access you become a skilled communicator with a new persona.
Direct experience in foreign lands can be publicly messy and tainted with moments of paralysing self-consciousness. Whilst all the locals seem comfortable, competent and as one with their environment, you can feel sidelined and misunderstood like some under-confident but congenial gate-crasher. I contend that this characterises some students’ experience of traditional school curricula.
The beauty of working with digitally mediated resources is the amount of control you enjoy over your material along with the opportunity for self-expression in a different language and context without any of the cultural inconveniences and feelings of estrangement outlined above. On the contrary, it’s safe, satisfying and a perfect vehicle for the articulation of identity.
Rich Mix, a charity and social enterprise arts venue in Bethnal Green, East London is expanding its educational programme for schools, colleges and teachers. They offered a free animation workshop for Tower Hamlets teachers with animators, Tom Hillenbrand and Shelley Wain. I knew the principles of animation from working with Flash in the early noughties, but the hands on experience was entirely other and much more enjoyable.
Over a period of about 3 hours, we went through the processes of development, pre-production, production (I Can Animate) and post-production (iMovie) and produced a 30 second cut-out animation. From a stimulus involving a pile of subjects (ours was History) and a pile of film genres (ours was Horror), some hand-crafted flat elements, a latent appreciation of film grammar and a collective knowledge of Anne Boleyn’s sad demise, our group of 3 created a multi-layered text with narrative meaning – in a medium that was new to us. See here at 33 seconds in.
Persistence of Vision was an MEA animation project from 2009 – 2010 whose central hypothesis was “that recurrent opportunities for children to engage in critical and creative activity with animated film would lead to substantial gains in children’s attainment, not only in relation to film but also in relation to other curricular areas and behaviour, compared to what they might achieve through “one-off” projects” (taken from the summary report, accessed April 2012).
Activities and projects such as these reinforce my conviction that the synthesis of elements – concepts, ideas, tangible objects, media, music, sound, genres, photos, illustrations, disciplines, familiar narratives, plasticine, lego – is the most potent creative act and when applied in new contexts, this synthesis deepens our capacity to make meaning.
As Tim Brook puts it, film-making can be the “digital glue” that meshes our own personal network of skills, knowledge and understanding. In “Teaching Media in Primary Schools” (ed. Bazalgette, 2010:128), Brook alludes to Picasso’s ‘Bulls Head’ or rather his alternative take on a bicycle saddle and some handlebars arranged in a bovine way: “Picasso offered us a new way of seeing both bicycle and bull, and also a deeper understanding of our own perceptions. The film-making process likewise pulls together a wide range of competences from the curriculum and beyond.”
This range of competencies is beautifully illustrated in a local ongoing animation project, one of whose episodes was produced and filmed at Hackney Pirates last summer. Animator, Saskia Schmidt, has conceived of a story in which a sheep is on a journey to discover all the colours in the world. Hackney’s was Silver World. The film recalls all the surreal qualities of my childhood interactions with animation, where nothing was more normal than for soft knitted aliens with long noses to engage with Soup Dragons and speak in high pitch, whooping cadences. Young children are now given the opportunity to fully indulge, record and distribute the fruit of their creative urges, a privilege that was once the preserve of BBC programme commissioners and professional creatives of the day.
Toy Stories and Wall-E – quality storytelling. Below is the writer, Andrew Stanton, at TED explaining his craft. I particularly like what he has to say about the need to seduce the audience into caring, the purity of stories without dialogue and also the importance of leaving gaps and withholding information. We create and listen to narratives all day long in business contexts, in academia, in education, in politics and more overtly in anecdotal chitchat and daily media interactions. Aspects of film education explicitly cater to our need to carve some cognitive sense out of everyday chaos and make it affective, so why not orchestrate more of that in the curriculum?
Here are a couple of transcriptions from his talk. (See full transcription here)
“The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, “Frankly there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you know their story.” And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, “Make me care.”
Please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically… make me care.
We all know what it’s like to not care. You’ve gone through hundreds of TV channels, just switching, channel after channel. And suddenly you actually stop on one, it’s already halfway over, but something’s caught you and you’re drawn in. That’s not by chance, that’s by design.“
“Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It’s the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you’re making them work for their meal. We’re born problem solvers. We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in. There’s a reason that we’re all attracted to an infant or a puppy. It’s not just that they’re damn cute; it’s because they can’t completely express what they’re thinking and what their intentions are. And it’s like a magnet. We can’t stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in.”
Over a few afternoon sessions at the end of 2011 I worked with 4 particular Year 4 boys on a film review of the Japanese animation Ponyo by Studio Ghibli. We started off the project by playing with flip books and then listening to the sound on the wonderful short “Birthday Boy” (on the BFI Story Shorts 2 DVD) set in a Korean war zone; we then watched Birthday Boy intently a few times, matching sound with image. After seeing Ponyo at Rich Mix as part of National Schools Film Week, we discussed characters, setting, sound, narrative & style and compared the 2 films. They produced a considered set of thoughts and observations. They also made their own drawings inspired by Miyazaki & the Studio Ghibli animators.
The piece was entered into Film Education‘s annual ‘Young Film Critic‘ Competition at the end of 2011, but what differentiated their review was that it was collaboratively filmed, produced and edited as opposed to individually written. Film Education received over 1000 film review entries to their competition, three of which were filmed. Approaching film and literacy in this way gives these children agency to show and share their understanding in a medium with which they are familiar as well as an opportunity for interaction with a sector to which they may never ordinarily have had access.
A good film review is supposed to inform, illuminate and entertain and the children’s efforts therein were rewarded – seeing their enthusiasm and engagement, Film Education asked the boys to attend the Award Ceremony at the BAFTA headquarters in Piccadilly to accept a Special School Prize, a category that had to be created for them as there was no category for a collaborative entry in the film critic competition. Here’s the 2 minute review which they edited down from 30 minutes of material:
In my dissertation I looked at the notion of second orality and Andrew Burn’s kineikonic mode – offering a framework for understanding moving image texts – including such elements as movement, sound, speech and gesture – as well as their sites of distribution – whether that be a class of peers in Tower Hamlets or an audience of competition nominees, parents, Directors, Producers & CEOs at The Princess Ann Theatre at BAFTA. The fact of audiovisual texts begetting further audiovisual texts displayed in a multiplicity of social settings perhaps signals the resurgence of rhetoric as a must-have skill. The more we invest in digital rhetorical skill in the primary years, the better equipped our young citizens will be for social participation. See similar ideas in action in the field, in the movie + commentary here: Telferscot School Case Study.
More provocative pause for thought from Mr. Rosen:
“language is owned and controlled by everybody and what we do with it seems to be governed by various kinds of consent, operating through the social groups of our lives … so Gwynne, I suspect will have immense amounts of fun and satisfaction telling people what is ‘right’. People attending his classes will feel immensely pleased that they have been told what’s right and will probably spend a good deal of time telling other people they meet or read where and how they are wrong. This is not a neutral activity. It is part of how a certain caste of people have staked a claim over literacy. In effect, they state over and over again that literacy belongs to them.”
Taken from here:
English student teachers and some Year 7s jointly embraced the challenge of making a ‘Film in a Day’. An ever-fruitful collaboration between The Institute of Education (IoE) and London Nautical School (LNS) produced some truly imaginative, filmed responses to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Theo Bryer and Rebecca Wilson from the IoE and LNS English teachers Chris Waugh & Morlette Lindsay (also IoE), worked in partnership to create an intertextual learning extravaganza.
The Year 7s were well prepared for the day in terms of familiarity with the poem and with thoughts on a filmed and edited response. The teachers had been trained in the use of software and Flip cameras the day before, having made their own ‘film in a day’, and were thus primed to execute new knowledge. Many pages and posts could be written on why this project was the success it was, but in my role as observer, capturer and enthusiast, I’d like to highlight a couple of points…
Cary Bazalgette, indefatigable advocate of moving image literacy (MIE), has long been voicing the benefits of its more widespread use in school curricula. In her 2009 report “Impacts of Moving Image Education: A Summary of Research for Scottish Screen“, she concludes from various studies that:
… by gaining confidence and control in one medium, it becomes easier for children to envisage themselves as authors in other media too: thus, gains in the more conventional ‘textual production’ modes of writing, speaking and listening are reported across most of the studies (2009:21)
Not only does use of one medium nourish the use of others, Chris claims that the nuanced meaning-making and sophisticated understanding evidenced by the boys’ films in some cases far exceeds that which could have been achieved with a written response.
From the teachers’ perspective, although a 3:1 pupil/teacher ratio isn’t realistic in the real world, experience shows that with adequate logistical and pupil preparation in media-related projects, teachers could aspire to a facilitator’s role, choreographing groups rather than directing them. In this way, students feel the benefit of autonomous and sticky learning.
As Chris pointed out on a subsequent screening day to all 130 student teachers and as Theo materially demonstrated throughout the 2-day stint, it takes a pioneering spirit to promote film making as an alternative means of showing understanding in traditional school settings.Both students and teachers were very much ‘in the moment’ during editing (see my posts on flow), making deeper and remixed reference back to the text. What more can an English teacher ask?
Increasingly I think that digital editing not only provides a meaningful context for learning but also makes explicit a key 21st century competence: being discerning when it comes to making selections from masses of data. The boys’ films can be seen on Chris’s Year 7 blog.
Here’s a short film of various moments in the day, showing salubrious levels of interaction between students and teachers.
Michael Rosen’s posts are a constant source of inspiration and passionate entreaty. This one struck a particular chord: who indeed owns literacy? How is it being culturally mediated? If we can agree that literacy is a competence that enables those who have it to constructively participate in society (isn’t that the aim of most educational endeavour?), we should come up with more child-centred ways of giving them access to it. They can experience what it feels like to be in control of a Wow Word Wall or a pupil-owned and edited collaborative blog. Teachers as skilled facilitators rather than deliverers of literacy, that’s what I’d like to see more of. See the full post here.